London: This Raw Thing
‘I haven’t painted [Mornington Crescent] to ally myself with some Camden Town Group, but simply because I feel London is this raw thing... This extraordinary, marvellously unpainted city where wherever somebody tries to get something going the stop halfway through, and next to it something incongruous occurs... this higgledypiggledy mess of a city’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (ed.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh.cat., London, 2001, p. 100). During the mid-20th Century, while Abstract Expressionism was taking hold in the United States of America, a group of exceptionally gifed artists were making similar waves on the other side of the Atlantic, yet with a very diferent style. The so-called ‘London School’ of British artists were refusing to abandon fguration, and instead were boldly experimenting with technique, texture and subject matter, pushing the boundaries of painting, and elevating London to the artistic status it still enjoys. Joining the likes of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon in the informal ranks of post-war British painters, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossof both developed a rigorous focus on their own surroundings. Both students of David Bomberg, Kossof and Auerbach experiment liberally with the texture of their picture surface, maximising the expression that could be conveyed through the clearly-defned stroke of the painter’s brush.
Auerbach’s paintings of Mornington Crescent perfectly demonstrate this. Living near the NorthWest London train station, it would constantly be prevalent in his mind’s eye. Therefore, he has painted the scene numerous times throughout his career, ofen appearing to use the familiar landscape as an armature upon which to test new styles and painterly techniques. For example, Mornington Crescent Winter, painted in 1967-69, is a linear, structured work with thickly applied paint. By contrast, in Mornington Crescent Summer Morning, 2004, we can perceive a much more developed style, combining an intensely expressive brushstroke with a subtler colour palette which itself introduces another mode of expression. Fascinated with this ‘higgledypiggledy mess of a city,’ Auerbach has almost exclusively painted London scenes, while his portraiture largely comprises friends living in the city, who return for sitting afer sitting, and indeed painting afer painting, themselves becoming a part of his landscape.
Frank Auerbach Red Brick School Building, Willesden, Spring, 1981. Oil on board © Leon Kossof. Image: Bridgeman Images
Each of them bases their work on their own visual and emotional experience, taking as subject matter the people and the surroundings of their own lives. This has resulted in an intense focus upon London itself, refecting its importance as their home. In their paintings, London provides not a backdrop, but a subject. Their paintings reveal a visceral connection to the city. This is emphasised by their repeated depiction of certain motifs, favoured views which are visited again and again, in diferent lights, moods, seasons and styles over the years.
Phillips presents the 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 9 February in London.